Campaign Notes (The GOP)

The GOP-Heap after Iowa 2016, © Susan Barsy
In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, GOP candidates are dropping like flies. In a more insensitive time, they would be likened to the ten little Indians, who dwindled, through various mishaps, to the point of annihilation.

In truth, it’s fair to wonder whether at this point, with nine GOP presidential candidates remaining, they are not already annihilated.  Is any of them a nationally electable candidate?  Would the nation really elevate a Bible-thumping Ted Cruz to the presidency?  Would it tolerate having as its symbolic representative someone as indelicate and bellicose as Donald Trump? As priggish as Marco Rubio?  One senses it is already over for the Republicans—that, despite all the hubbub and incessant media attention, the party is in the throes of something ugly, something momentous, even life-threatening.

The ‘establishment’ of the Republican Party appears weak indeed.  It is being weakened cannibalistically, as hostile forces (the ‘anti-establishment’) eat away at it from inside.  Ted Cruz’s campaign manager, Rick Tyler, described the situation brilliantly in a post-Iowa interview with the Newshour‘s Gwen Ifill.  Usually, he said, ‘the establishment has one well-funded candidate, and the conservative [wing] has a lot with no money.  This time, we’re the well-funded candidate, and the establishment, there’s a lot of them, and they don’t have the money.’

The situation points up the party’s growing incapacity to influence who will become its nominee.  The national party structure is more or less irrelevant to the primary process, where individual choice and extraneous forces (ranging from mega-donors to cable networks) increasingly shape the candidate field.  The pruning of candidates is being accomplished by entities like Fox and CNN rather than by the Republican National Committee.

The fallout from Iowa, where the three top candidates garnered 75% of the vote and nine ‘trailing’ candidates split the remainder, shows the prescience of former candidate Scott Walker’s warning to his rivals back in September, when weak early poll numbers based on his debate performances prompted him to drop out.  Others should follow his lead, Walker argued, so that the party could coalesce quickly around an alternative to Trump.  Three candidates–Paul, Santorum, and Huckabee–finally quit the race this week.  By now, however, the opportunity to create an impression of unity is gone.

Be careful what you wish for.  The Republican party’s disarray and fragmentation is accelerating under the impact of  Citizens United, the ironically titled Supreme Court decision widely regarded as conferring an advantage on Republicans and the wealthy cliques selectively backing them.  Now it appears that, with outside money flowing into the campaign process unimpeded, the power of the Party to govern itself and its nominating process has been fatally weakened.  As Mr Tyler notes, candidates like Cruz, whom the establishment hates, now have the money and staying power.  There’s little to keep such creatures from claiming the party’s mantle–whether the GOP likes it or not.

Could Donald Trump Become President?

Trump being interviewed after the 5th GOP debate.

Could Donald Trump become president?   The most recent GOP debate left me wondering.  Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in.  Now, I have my doubts.  Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.

Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious.  For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing.  Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.

Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead?  Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible.  Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.

In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people.  In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity.  Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly.  As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.

Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror.  Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.

Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy.  A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense.  Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.

So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president?  Like it or not, the answer is yes.  Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign.  Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?

For a transcript of the debate, click here.
For a fact-check of the debate, click here.

Good TV is the front-runner, for now

Montage of GOP candidates.

People are asking what I think of the GOP race. I think the GOP lacks a strong candidate and that any analysis failing to factor in the entertainment value of the debates is seriously flawed.

The candidates are in a phase of competition now being referred to as the ‘virtual primary.’  This is rather insulting to voters, because the virtual primary doesn’t involve any voting. Instead, the media scrutinizes other measures extraneous to the democratic process to report on how candidates are supposedly faring, consulting betting pools, Nielsen ratings, fund-raising tallies, and public-opinion polls.  By these measures, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are said to be gaining. Figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich are said to be fading, to the point of being on ‘life support.’

Significantly, however, none of the fifteen remaining GOP candidates has dropped out since Scott Walker ended his bid on September 21.  Many commentators had predicted a rash of drop-outs from among the supposedly trailing candidates come November 1.  Yet, for now, all the candidates have chosen to stick around, possibly sensing that the supposed front-runners are unelectable and that the state-by-state primary votes will check the speculative nonsense of the virtual primary.

If, in fact, Republicans vote en masse to make a character like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Marco Rubio their nominee, it will spell another stage in the decline of the GOP.  Old-style Republicans who believe in collaboration and the preservation of tradition will begin drifting away, looking for a way to regain their rightful preeminence as a political force.  Go-it-alone candidates like Rubio and Cruz and fringe candidates like Trump and Carson do not enjoy the support of the party mainstream.  (See David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 13, which elicited a deluge of assent from readers disappointed in the direction of the GOP.)

In the meantime, we are witnessing proof of the entertainment value of politics.  We can’t resist the cattle-call debates, because let’s face it, they’re damn good TV: ‘good’ in the sense of being unpredictable, juicy, and tangentially relating to matters of momentous seriousness.  These are the very elements that define great drama.  The debates have a circus-like atmosphere and are analyzed in the same performative terms that the commentators would apply to a boxing match or a new theater production.

The televised competition among the GOP candidates is entertaining, fantastical, and engrossing.  The possibility of an outlandish figure like Donald Trump becoming president presents a wild challenge to our collective political imagination.  Notwithstanding his red ferret-like face and ridiculous blond comb-over, Trump demands that we take him seriously.  He plays a wild card, rudely blustering and defying political convention.  His behavior, seen in purely dramatic terms, delivers a catharsis that many disaffected Americans find refreshing.  Trump also embodies attributes that citizens long to see in a political leader: certainty and a conviction of being competent to ‘reign.’  His style is the antithesis of candidates who are ruled by dweeby advisors and focus-group wisdom.

Trump’s intrusion into politics gives us something to ponder: for, were this particularly entertaining figure to become president, the effect on our political culture would be profound.  Yet my sense is that Americans don’t want cartharsis every day.  For now, Trump and the other candidates supply a unique form of entertainment–one that will dwindle in significance as audiences turn into voters and go to the polls.